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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Bemidbar

PARSHAT BEMIDBAR – SHAVUOT
(5776)
HOW IMPORTANT IS LINEAGE?
“They assembled all the congregation together on the first day of the second month, and they registered by families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, by their polls.” (Numbers 1:18)
A fascinating question came up yesterday in Amy Dickinson’s syndicated advice column. A man wrote in that during his younger years he had been a sperm donor. He admitted that he had done it for the money, and he found out that he had sired a number of children. One of the children had tracked him down. Now a number of other children were prepared to make contact with him. Was he obligated to allow these children into his life? Dickinson responded that he had no such obligation.
Obviously the children wanted to know their biological heritage. Lineage is an important part of who we are as human beings. A particular man gave the sperm and a particular woman gave the egg and the womb that created each of us. This lineage made us who we are. This week’s portion puts a huge emphasis on this lineage. A census was taken of the Israelites as they prepared to travel through the wilderness. But the census was taken “by families, by the house of their fathers.” In the Biblical tradition our name is connected to our father’s name. We are called “so-and-so, the son of so-and-so”, “so-and-so, the daughter of so-and so.” In our more egalitarian times, children are often called not simply by their father’s but by their mother’s name.
When I meet with a bride and groom before a wedding, one of the first questions I ask them is their Hebrew names. Usually they know this. Then I ask them their father’s, and if possible their mother’s Hebrew name. Most of them give me a blank stare. Yet I need at least the father’s name to properly fill out the ketubah, the Jewish wedding document. In the rituals of Judaism our lineage makes us who we are.
This emphasis on lineage became extremely important during the beginning of the second Temple period. When Ezra led the Israelites back to the Promised Land from the Babylonian exile, he brought a book of lineage so everybody would clearly know their line of descent. He also made the Israelites divorce their foreign born wives and abandon their foreign born children. Maintaining the purity of lineage is an important idea in Jewish tradition. But not everybody agrees.
The festival of Shavuot begins Saturday night, celebrating the giving of the Torah to the people Israel. Tradition is to read the book of Ruth on Shavuot, a book celebrating the acceptance of the Torah by a kind Moabite woman, who cast her fate with the people Israel. Ruth says “your people will be my people, you God will be my God.” (Ruth 1:16) What stands out is that Ruth is clearly from the wrong lineage. She is a Moabite woman, part of a people who are expressly forbidden to marry into the household of Israel. (Deuteronomy 23:4) Ruth, in spite of her lineage, was not only accepted into the household of Israel, she became the great grandmother of King David.
I am convinced that the book of Ruth became part of the Biblical canon to send a clear message. There must be an alternative to the Ezra approach. Lineage is secondary to character. The household of Israel is open to people of every lineage, and of unknown lineage. This is the teaching I use to justify my openness to seeking new converts to Judaism. This message is also linked to the question of parenting. The Talmud teaches that to be a parent is not necessarily to be a biological parent; the true parent is the one who raises and teaches a child. (Sanhedrin 19b)
In fact, this idea that lineage is secondary comes out explicitly in this week’s portion. The Torah teaches, “These are the children of Aaron and Moses…” (Numbers 3:1). It then lists the descendants of Aaron. Why is Moses’s name mentioned here? Rashi makes the beautiful comment that Aaron gave birth but Moses taught them, and whoever teaches a children, it is as if he or she gave birth. According to sources such as this, parenting is about teaching, not about lineage.
So we have two diverse messages from this week’s portion. Lineage is everything. Lineage is unimportant. In a sense they are both true. Our children become who they are through both nature and nurture. We cannot afford to neglect either side.

PARSHAT BEMIDBAR AND SHAVUOT
(5775)
IN THE WILDERNESS
“On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting.”
(Numbers 1:1)
Shabbat morning we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah. In English it is called Numbers, based on the careful numbering of the people of Israel before they begin their travels through the desert. But in Hebrew the book is called bemidbar – “in the wilderness.” It is the story of the forty years of wandering through the wilderness. One might think that the people Israel loved the desert. On the contrary, they called it “an empty howling wasteland.” (Deuteronomy 32:10). The forty years of wandering through the wilderness is actually a punishment for the people’s lack of faith.
Saturday evening we begin celebrating the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Shavuot commemorates the events on Mt. Sinai, the giving of the Ten Commandments, and ultimately the revealing of the Torah. Mt. Sinai is an unknown place in the middle of the wilderness. Many years ago, when the Sinai desert was still in Israel’s hands (it has been turned back to Egypt), I did a five day trip through the desert. One would think it was hot. In truth, that trip was the coldest I had ever been. (I am after all from California.) We came in the middle of the night to a monastery called Santa Caterina. According to their tradition, the monastery is built on the foot of Mt. Sinai. We hiked up the mountain, watched the sunrise, and said our morning prayers on the spot where, at least according to the Greek Orthodox, Moses received the Ten Commandments. It was a moving moment, but no one knows if this is the real Mt. Sinai or not.
Jewish tradition is deliberately vague about the exact location of Mt. Sinai. One might ask the question – why did we not receive the Torah in a holy place like Jerusalem? The answer is that God deliberately chose a place in the middle of the Wilderness, a place unclaimed by any nation. Why the wilderness? Rabbis through the ages have offered many answers. One answer that I like is that the Torah was not given in territory exclusive to any nation. Rather it was given in a place accessible to every nation. The Torah was given to everyone, all humanity. The Midrash would later say that the Torah was given in every language spoken on earth. All humanity, not just the people Israel, can learn from the Torah.
One of my fundamental religious beliefs is that the wisdom of the Torah is universal. All human beings can learn from it. I have been writing these spiritual messages for approximately fifteen years. I have deliberately written messages that I believe are universal in tone with insights for everyone. Many non-Jews receive my messages. If I write about the chapters of the Torah on food, I may mention the Jewish dietary laws in passing. But my main concern is eating as a human act – how can all human beings make the act of eating holy? If I speak about marriage, I might mention something about the Jewish wedding ceremony. But my major concern is marriage as a human institution – how can we teach human beings to rise above the animal within us by sanctifying relationships.
The Torah was given at Mt Sinai, in an unspecified place in the middle of the wilderness, to teach a powerful lesson. The Torah is not the unique property of any one nation. The wisdom of the Torah is universal, with lessons for all nations to benefit. Yes the Torah was given to the people Israel. But way back at the beginning of Genesis, the people Israel are told that through them will all the nations of the world be blessed
One more thought to drive home the message that the Torah is a universal document. On Shavuot we will be reading the book of Ruth. Ruth is the convert par excellance. She is born of a Moabite family, a people who are to be kept separate from Israel. Yet she chooses to commit herself to the Torah and the Jewish people, following her mother-in-law back to Israel. Not only does the Torah contain wisdom for all humanity. But for those human beings of every background who choose to join the Jewish people, the door is always open.

PARSHAT BEMIDBAR
(5774)
GRANDPARENTS
“From the sons of Joseph, from Ephraim Elishama son of Ammihud, from Manesseh, Gamaliel son of Pedahzur.” (Numbers 1:10)
This portion begins with a careful numbering of the twelve tribes of Israel, about to begin their journeys through the desert. Who were these twelve tribes? Most people believe they correspond to the twelve children of Jacob. But that is only partially true.
Jacob actually had thirteen children – twelve sons and one daughter. In those days a daughter did not become the namesake of one of the tribes. Dina would join whatever tribe she married into. Of course we know that Dina was seduced by Shechem the son of Hamor. What became of her afterwards is unknown (although the novel The Red Tent by Anita Diamant tells her story.) The Midrash teaches that Dina’s daughter by the seduction, Asnath, became the wife of Joseph. (see Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer chap. 38)
So we have twelve sons to become the progenitors of twelve tribes. But one of the sons, Levi, does not count. His tribe becomes the spiritual leaders and religious functionaries. (Remember Moses was from the tribe of Levi.) The book of Numbers actually does a totally separate count of Levi, counting not the men of military age but rather the men capable of being religious leaders. So this leaves eleven sons.
How do we get twelve tribes from eleven sons? For an answer, we need to turn back to Genesis, where Jacob blesses his two grandsons born to his favorite son Joseph. Jacob tells his son Joseph, “Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon.” (Genesis 48:5) The grandfather expresses his desire that his two grandsons will become the equivalent of his sons. For all intents and purposes, Jacob adopts Ephraim and Manasseh. They become the names of two of the tribes. Now we have twelve tribes, ten named after ten of Jacob’s sons excluding Levi and Joseph, and two named after two of his grandsons.
Grandparents adopting grandchildren is not simply a Biblical phenomenon. I see it all the time. A daughter has a baby which she is unable to raise. The grandparents are forced to take over. Sometimes the arrangement is informal, and sometimes the grandparents must go to court to become legal guardians. Occasionally the grandparents literally adopt grandchildren. It has become common in our world where frequently young people have babies before they are ready to raise them.
Even in the usual case of children giving birth to grandchildren, the grandparents have special obligations. It is not simply the many humorous remarks people make. For example, Dennis Prager famously proclaimed that there is a special relationship between grandparents and grandchildren – they have a common enemy. That is part of the sweetness of being a grandparent. My wife and I tried to raise our children without overly spoiling them, but when my mother of blessed memory came to visit from Los Angeles this goal fell by the wayside. Every time she nearly bought out Toys R Us. There is something magical about the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. That accounts for the bumper sticker, “If I Had Known How Wonderful Grandchildren Are, I Would Have Had Them First.”
On a more serious note, just as parents must teach their children, so grandparents must teach their grandchildren. Values are passed down from generation to generation. I tell grandparents all the time that they can create memories for their children. Allow me to share a personal example. I did not grow up in a kosher home, but began keeping kosher after I went to college. But I had memories. My parents believed in having milk with every meal. But my grandparents, if they served chicken or meat, allowed us to drink soda. That is why I loved going to their home.
I do not know if they influenced me to keep kosher. But I do know that my Passover dishes came from my grandmother. And I know that I learned many values not simply from my parents but from my grandparents. And I hope to teach values to future grandchildren I hope to have.

PARSHAT BEMIDBAR
(5773)
NUMBERS DON’T COUNT
“Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of names, every male by their polls.” (Numbers 1:2)
This week we begin a new book of the Torah. In Hebrew it is called bemidbar – “in the wilderness” for it focuses on the wanderings of the Israelites through the wilderness. In English it is called Numbers, because it begins with a careful census of the Israelites. Moses counts all the men of military age and comes up with approximately 600,000 people. Add the women, the children, the elderly, and the tribe of Levi, and we have two to three million people. It is a huge number, particularly considering that the Israelites had gone down to Egypt with just seventy men a few generations before.
This census became the exception that later proved the rule. In the future God would forbid such a census. Later, at the height of his power, King David takes a census of the Israelites in his united kingdom. God punishes David for this transgression. “And David’s heart struck him after he had counted the people. And David said to the Lord, I have sinned greatly in what I have done; and now, I beseech you, O Lord, take away the iniquity of your servant; for I have done very foolishly.” (2 Samuel 24:10) As a punishment a severe pestilence came onto the land. A plague was narrowly averted when David prayed for forgiveness.
In keeping with the tradition, religious Jews avoid counting people. We need ten for a minyan, a quorum for prayer, but we never count people directly “one, two, three, etc.” I recite a passage from Psalms – if there is a person for each word of the passage, we can begin our prayers. It is a well established bit of Jewish folklore that any attempt to count people is considered bad luck. We Jews do not count.
I believe there is a deeper truth behind this ancient practice. If the Jewish people depended on numbers, they would have given up long ago. Today there are well over a billion Christians in the world. There are about a billion Moslems. Who knows the number of Hindus and Buddhists? As for Jews, by most estimates there are approximately 15 million in the world. The number would be higher, but Hitler killed six million. Our numbers are tiny. But our influence is huge.
That is the lesson of this week’s portion. You do not need numbers to make a difference. The Jewish people, tiny in number, have given the world some of its most influential ideas. For anyone who questions this, I recommend Thomas Cahill’s wonderful book The Gifts of the Jews; How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Things and Feels. Cahill by the way is not Jewish, but he captures how a small group with a wonderful idea can change history.
We live in a democracy. Being in the majority counts. And yet, sometimes it is small minorities that truly make a difference. Sometimes one person with a vision can change everything. Think about the Buddha. Think about Einstein. Think about Steve Jobs. Often it is a minority small in numbers who articulate a position that slowly becomes the majority. We see this happening throughout history. Originally it was a small minority who became abolitionists, seeking to outlaw slavery. It was a minority who originally called for the right of women to vote, and eventually for women to be treated as fully equal human beings in all areas of life. Today we see something that was a small minority view a decade ago, the acceptance of gays and lesbians, slowly being embraced by the majority. Over and over an image, a vision, or an idea embraced by a passionate minority becomes the accepted view of the majority.
I believe this is the reason why we do not worry about numbers. We do not sit and count. Even if we are a tiny minority, we ought to articulate what is right. When a small minority embraces an idea, if they articulate it with passion and conviction, it can become the majority idea. Small numbers can change the world.

PARSHAT BEMIDBAR
(5771)

POPULATION GROWTH
“All the Israelites, aged twenty years and over, enrolled by ancestral houses, all those in Israel who were able to bear arms – all who were enrolled came to 603,550”
(Numbers 1:45-46)
The new book of Numbers begins with a census of all the Israelite men of military age. The final number is slightly over six hundred thousand. Counting the women, the elders, the children, the total population who wandered through the wilderness was probably between two and three million. But let us look at that 600,000 number.
Four generations earlier the Israelites had gone down to Egypt with seventy men. How many children must each family have to increase from 70 to 600,000 in four generations? One dozen? Two dozen? Perhaps three dozen? I will not try to work out the exact mathematics here. It is hard enough to imagine each family having dozens of children. But add to that the fact that the Israelites were slaves working ungodly hours. It is hard to imagine the men building the pyramids by day and coming home exhausted to their wives, then siring these huge families. There was a miracle built into these population increase.
The Midrash (Rabbinic legends) explains these amazing feats of procreation. One Midrash teaches that when Pharaoh demanded all baby boys be thrown in the Nile, the men separated from their wives. No one wanted to bring children into such a cruel world. It was Miriam, Moses’ sister, who convinced her father to go back to her mother and bring new children into the world. According to tradition, Miriam told her father, “Pharaoh’s decree is only against the boys, you are decreeing against both boys and girls. Pharaoh’s decree is only for this world, you are decreeing for this world and the world to come. Pharaoh’s decree may be overturned any time, your decree will not be overturned.” As a result of Miriam’s arguments, Moses parents came back together and Moses was born.
Another Midrash praises the women for maintaining the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. The men came home from their slavery exhausted. The women used their mirrors to make themselves so beautiful that the men could not resist. So the Israelites continued to have these large families. Later, when the Tabernacle was built, God ordered the Israelites to use the women’s mirrors as a reward for the mitzvah of procreation.
We learn from these Midrashic passages a fundamental value from our tradition. Having children is central. Even during difficult times, children represent our hope for the future. Shortly we will be celebrating the festival of Shavuot, which honors the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. At our synagogue we have a tradition (conceived by my colleague Rabbi Stephen Steindel) called The Bounty of the Babies. In the morning, right after we read the giving of the Ten Commandments, we call up all the babies born in the congregation this past year for a blessing. The babies are our guarantee of a wonderful future.
Allow me to give a modern interpretation of a very old and strange Rabbinic passage. “Rabbi Asi said, the son of David [the Messiah] will not be come until all the souls in Guf [God’s storehouse] have been born.” (Yebamot 62a) God keeps a storehouse of human souls, each one waiting to be born. The quicker those souls are born, the quicker will the Messiah come. Perhaps each soul has a task to bring about the perfect age in the future. Every time a new child is born into the world, that task of perfecting the world moves forward. On the other hand, every time a family avoids having a new child, the task of perfecting the world is delayed.
According to tradition, the Israelites went from slavery to freedom. They did so by bringing large families into the world. Each new baby holds a piece of the puzzle in our slow march towards perfecting this world as a kingdom of God.

PARSHAT BEMIDBAR
(5770)

BEING A NUMBER

“Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.” (Numbers 1:2)

I am a graduate student at Florida Atlantic University, working my way towards a PhD. I love wandering around the campus; I suppose it brings me back to my youth. Only one thing drives me crazy. Whenever I go into any campus office to conduct any business, I first must tell them my Z (student I.D.) number. I tell them I do not know the number, but I do have a name. The usual answer – “come back when you know your number.”
I suppose I could carry my number in my wallet. But a certain perverse stubbornness prevents me from keeping the number. I want to be known as a person, not a number. I know that when I wait in line in the bakery, I need to take a number and wait my turn. Using numbers keeps things under control when the bakery is busy. But it is nice being seen as a person, not simply “number 36.” It is nice when the woman behind the trays of cookies says, “Rabbi Gold, nice to see you. How is your family? Do you want some of the corn muffins I know you like?”
We have become a society of numbers. I have a social security number and a driver’s license number. I have a passport number and numerous credit card numbers. I have frequent flier numbers, a gym membership number, and countless other numbers that allow me to function in society. We need numbers in this computer age. But we are not numbers. We are human beings, not simply names on somebody’s list or in somebody’s hard drive.
I think about this as we begin to read the fourth book of the Torah, known in English as the book of Numbers. It begins with a census of the number of Israelite men of military age crossing through the wilderness. It also includes the number of Levites from the age of thirty days and upwards, who were responsible for the religious leadership. This particular counting of the people is a one time exception. Later in the book of Samuel, King David was punished for taking a similar census.
In Judaism it is considered forbidden to count people. The usual reason is that we should be known for our quality, not our quantity. In a world with over a billion Christians, over a billion Muslims, and about 15 million Jews, we better be known for something besides our numbers. So according to tradition, even if we want to know whether or not we have the requisite ten for a minyan, we never count directly.
Why does Jewish tradition frown on counting? Another reason occurred to me this week as I greeted holocaust survivors in my synagogue. These people who went through the Nazi death camps had numbers tattooed on their arms. In the eyes of the Nazis they were no longer human beings. They were numbers, kept on a master list. And by numbers the commanders decided who shall live and who shall die.
The holocaust began with a series of actions meant to remove the humanity of Jews. One of the most perverse was to take away people’s names and give them numbers, forever written in ink on their bodies. When people are mere numbers, there is no need to recognize them as mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, or sons and daughters. There is no longer a need to see them as doctors or lawyers, merchants or teachers, musicians or artists. In the eyes of the Nazis, Jews were no longer human beings, and therefore they could be killed without guilt. Taking away humanity begins with seeing people as numbers.
In our contemporary society, I do not believe there is a threat of a holocaust. But I do believe that our technological age has the potential of taking away people’s humanity. The Bible teaches not to see people as mere numbers. After all, numbers are not created in the image of God, people are.

PARSHAT BEMIDBAR
(5769)

EVOLUTION

“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron saying, do not let the group of Kohathite clans be cut off from the Levites, Do this with them, that they may live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects.” (Numbers 4:17-19)

People sometimes ask me the question: “Rabbi, do you believe in God or do you believe in evolution?” My answer is simple, “yes.” When they push me further, I reply, “I believe in God and I believe in evolution. I believe God created the universe and is constantly involved in its ongoing evolution. In fact, in my mind, evolution points towards a God.”
I have been thinking about evolution this week. First, the Torah reading is a description of the lineage of the various tribes and clans within Israel, and which ones are likely to survive or die off. Evolution carries the same idea on a much grander scale. It claims that all life including humanity has descended from common ancestors. Which branches of life will survive and flourish, and which will disappear?
In addition, I am putting together my thoughts for my Tikkun Leil Shavuot (Shavuot evening study session) this coming Friday evening, the second night of the festival. My topic will be, “How did God create the universe?” I do not have all the answers, but I certainly believe God used evolution as a creative force. Finally, I have just finished a wonderful book with some great insights entitled Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religionby Francisco J. Ayala. Ayala is a biologist and a religious Catholic. His book demonstrates that not only can one believe in God and evolution, but also that evolution actually solves some very difficult theological issues.
Charles Darwin did not invent evolution; the ideas that life changes over time had been in the air before Darwin began his voyage on the HMS Beagle. Darwin’s brilliant insight was that evolution takes place through natural selection. (Alfred Russel Wallace developed the idea at the same time; his contribution is often forgotten.) Living things are constantly going through transformations and adaptations over time. Those adaptations most suitable for survival within a particular environment will then be passed on to descendents. Those less suitable will disappear. Natural selections accounts not only for the great variety of life on earth, but which species continue to exist and which have failed.
The discovery of genetics and the breaking of the DNA code gave us further insight about how such variation over time takes place. As species have offspring, occasionally their DNA will go through mutations. Most mutations are destructive and the offspring do not develop or quickly die off. But now and again there is a mutation that gives a reproductive advantage. Such offspring will have more offspring of their own, and life evolves to a new level. It is a natural but also remarkable process.
Where is God in this whole process? I reject the intelligent design proposition that teaches that every now and again God reaches down from heaven and pushes the evolutionary process along. For example, eyes could not evolve if God had not intervened and made a special creation. Philosophers call this a “God of the gaps” argument. God is there to fill in the gaps of what we do not understand. As we learn more and the gaps get smaller, God slowly disappears like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland. That is why I believe intelligent design is not only poor science but also poor religion.
I prefer an answer given by Ayala in his book. He speaks of the bombing in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War of the small Basque village of Guernica, and Picasso’s brilliant painting depicting those tragic events. One can carefully describe all the details of the painting – the size of the canvas, the pigments used, the exact description of the figures portrayed. It would be physically correct. But the essence and meaning of Picasso’s painting would be missing.
This is a metaphor for science. It can give a careful description of how nature works, how life evolved from one form to another. It would be physically correct, but essence and meaning would be missing. For a religious Christian like Ayala or a religious Jew like myself, the key is to see the whole process of evolution and say, “This too is the hand of God.”

PARSHAT BEMIDBAR
(5768)

POPULATION GROWTH
“These are those who were counted of the people of Israel by the house of their fathers; all those who were counted of the camps throughout their armies were six hundred three thousand five hundred and fifty.” (Numbers 2:32)
Moses, at God’s command, does a complete population count of the Israelites who have left Egypt. The final number is 603,550 men of military age. Add in the women, the seniors, and the children, and you have a mass of two to three million people wandering through the desert. How could the desert possibly have sustained them all? And a bigger question – where did so many people come from?
Jacob and his sons came to Egypt with a mere seventy men. Now four generations have come and gone. How could they grow from seventy men to a couple million people in just four generations? The Midrash speaks of the Israelite women who used mirrors to make themselves beautiful for their enslaved husbands. As a result, they were awarded with unnaturally large families. It is small wonderful that the Egyptians were so afraid of the Israelites large population growth. (It is reminiscent of what I often hear in Israel or Europe today, where the population growth of the Moslem population is much greater than that of Jews or Christians. There is always fear when the foreigners are growing too fast.)
Tradition has always seen large families as a blessing from God. The Talmud teaches that if a couple has children when they are young, they should continue to have children when they are old. Children are there not simply to care for us in old age; they make sure that our legacy is passed on to a new generation. That is why the very first commandment of the Torah is “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it.”
Today everything has changed. There is a concern with the effects of a large population growth on the sustainability of the earth. Overpopulation is seen as a major problem. In addition, couples no longer need to have large families to assure that some of their children will survive to adulthood. Medical care has vastly improved mortality rates. We need fewer children, and in the Western world we are having fewer children.
The movement for Zero Population Growth is strong in Western communities, and perhaps strongest among Jews. We Jews are marrying later if we marry at all, having less children, and many of us with children are not raising them as Jews. As the world population grows, the Jewish population shrinks. We Jews are proud that we are doing our part to solve our environmental problems by having fewer children. But is Zero Population Growth such a blessing?
There is a problem in any population group that does not have enough children to replace itself. The population grows older. Today people are living longer than ever, which is a blessing. But if there are more elders and less children, who will eventually care for all those elders? Who will provide the taxes to care for them? The number of people working and paying into the Social Security system is rapidly shrinking when compared to the number of people drawing from the system. As the years go by we will either have to raise the age of retirement for working people or tax younger people to the limit to keep the system functioning.
As Jews our Zero Population Growth is most disturbing. The number of Christians, of Moslems, of Mormons in the world are constantly growing. But we Jews have stayed at around fifteen million for as long as I remember. If our numbers diminish there will be fewer Jews to support our synagogues, our schools, and our other institutions. And what will it mean for our renowned political clout as our numbers diminish? (If our politicians see more Moslems than Jews in our major population centers, will they still support Israel?)
Long ago Thomas Malthus scared the world by predicting that human population will grow far faster than the earth’s ability to feed them. Malthus did not take account of technological innovations. Today many people in the West prefer an anti-Malthus stand; there is too little population. Our community is not replacing itself. Perhaps like the ancient Israelites, we should once again embrace the blessing of fertility and a growing community.

PARSHAT BEMIDBAR
(5767)

BEING AN EMPLOYEE

“And Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest shall be chief over the chiefs of the Levites, and will supervise those who keep the charge of the sanctuary.” (Numbers 3:32)

Last week I wrote a simple message. Bosses need to recognize the human dignity of their workers. My words elicited a powerful response from numerous people, both bosses and employees. I heard from readers who have encountered bosses from hell. But I also heard from bosses confronting employees from hell – employees who were insubordinate, disrespectful, or who took advantage of their position. I heard from bosses who had confronted workers who expected a day’s pay without putting in a day’s work.
This week I am seeking balance. If my theme last week was what bosses owe their workers, my theme this week is what workers owe their bosses. It is a perfect theme for this week’s portion. We begin the new book of Numbers with a careful counting of the tribes of Israel before they moved across the wilderness. In particular the tribe of Levi was given the job of transporting and setting up all the pieces of the holy tabernacle. And Aaron’s son Eleazar was made the boss, supervising the workers in the various appointed tasks.
I try to imagine what it was like for Eleazar as the Israelites traveled through the desert. He had a job to do. He had to make sure that the tabernacle was transported properly and respectfully, supervising a huge number of workers. Some of the workers did their jobs with competence and skill. But I am sure that there were others who complained about the hard work, about the weather, who shirked their duties, who came to work drunk or distracted. (There were no cell phones in the desert, but if there were I am sure there were workers who would be off talking on the phone during business hours.) I imagine Eleazar was often frustrated.
Later Jewish law recognized the obligations of workers towards those who hire them. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his book on Jewish values tells the Talmudic story of the great sage Abba Hilkiah, and how he prayed for the community during a drought. Yet the sages went to speak with Abba Hilkiah and he refused to respond to them. Later they asked him why. Abba Hilkiah replied, “I was a laborer hired by the day, and I said to myself that I cannot interrupt my work even for a moment.” (Taanit 23b) The Talmud also speaks about a teacher who takes on a personal fast, and thus cannot fully focus on teaching because of weakness from the fast. The Talmud forbids such a person from fasting for it prevents them from fully doing their job. A worker is forbidden from anything that might prevent them from properly doing their work.
To speak of the rights of bosses sounds a little strange from a Jewish perspective, for historically Jews have sided with the workers. The scene that pops to mind is that wonderful moment in the musical Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye hires the revolutionary Perchik to teach his younger daughters. Perchik begins with a lesson about Jacob working for his father-in-law Laban, who gave him the wrong daughter as a bride. Perchik continues his lesson telling them, what do we learn from this? Never trust a boss. This is the way Jews through history have often seen the relationship between workers and bosses.
The truth is that the boss is also a human being created in the image of God. The boss has a right to expect a full day of work for a full day of pay. Workers who take advantage by excessive absences, personal phone calls and distractions, arriving to work under the influence of drugs or alcohol, being abusive or insubordinate, are not fulfilling their obligations.
Perhaps we need to stop thinking about the relationship between a boss and an employee in terms of power. Rather it is a contract between two individuals – a certain amount of work for a certain amount of pay. Both the worker and the boss are bound to that contract. And each owes the other the basic obligation taught in our Torah; each owes the other fundamental human dignity.

PARSHAT BEMIDBAR
(5766)

THE DA VINCI CODE

“The Israelites shall camp each with this standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance.” (Numbers 2:2)

There is only one question on everybody’s mind these days. I have been asked over and over, what do I think of The Da Vinci Code? My first reaction is that I wish I had written it. I will give Dan Brown credit for writing a “can’t put it down” novel. As for the movie, it was long, sometimes a little hard to follow, and a good popcorn thriller. But its religious perspective needs deeper thought.
To answer this question about Christianity, let me first look at Judaism – in particular, this week’s portion. The Torah has a very idealistic view of Israel’s past. The twelve tribes wandered through the desert in perfect formation surrounding the tabernacle. Three tribes were to the east, three to the west, three to the north, and three to the south. It is almost too perfect. Realistically, historically, such perfection was unlikely. The tribes were warring with one another. Suppose historically we discovered that the journey through the desert was not so perfect, not so idealistic. Would that change my belief regarding Judaism? The answer is no.
Similarly I can ask my Christian friends, what if they did discover that Jesus was married, or even that Jesus sired a child? What if they discovered that Jesus was a little more human? Would it change the essence of Christian belief? Is Christianity truly based on the fact that Jesus was a life long bachelor? Or is the essence of Christianity the teachings of the man who Christians call the Christ? (Note – the word “Christ” means the messiah. Jews generally do not use the term “Christ” for we believe the messiah has not yet come.)
All religions idealize their history. Judaism idealizes the history of ancient Israel from the exodus from Egypt through the wandering in the desert to the establishment of the Davidic kingdom. And Christianity idealizes the life of Jesus as a man who lived a perfect life. Modern scholars have tried to separate the actual, historical Jesus from the one pictured in the Gospels. Was he married? We have no way of knowing, although it would be rare for a Jewish man in his thirties in that day and age to be a life long bachelor. Did Jesus have children? We have no way of knowing. Does it matter? Can a Christian be a good Christian regardless of the marital details of Jesus’ life?
Religion is not what actually happened in history. Religion is about how people of faith understood and interpreted those historical events. Both Judaism and Christianity agree that history has a direction and that the world can be redeemed. They disagree on how such redemption will happen. Judaism teaches that the world will be redeemed through the covenant, the relationship between God and the people Israel. Christianity teaches that the world will be redeemed through the one who they call the Christ. The precise historical details are unimportant. What is important is how people of faith have interpreted history.
I doubt that there is a believing Christian anywhere in the world whose faith was challenged by The Da Vinci Code. In the same way, I doubt that there is a believing Jew anywhere in the world whose faith was shaken by Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Religious faith is stronger than any bestselling novel or any Hollywood movie. Religious faith is stronger than any revisionist history. True faith will not be challenged by history.
So, what do I think of The Da Vinci Code? It was a good novel and an exciting movie. I will say the same thing I said when the controversy erupted over Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ – if the movie makes the faith of my Christian brothers and sisters stronger, it is a good thing.

PARSHAT BEMIDBAR
(5764)

A PORTABLE RELIGION

“The Israelites shall camp each with this standard, under the banners of their ancestral house, they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance.”
(Numbers 2:2)

One of the joys of life here in south Florida is going to the stadium to see our world champion Florida Marlins. And part of the joy for me of a local major league baseball game is enjoying a glatt kosher hot dog from the stand on level one. I enjoy the hot dog before the game, leaving open only one question. How long must I wait before I can have my Carvel ice cream? (Usually I wait three hours between meat and milk. But doesn’t the Talmud say somewhere that you only have to wait seven innings? :))
I was at the hot dog stand recently when someone asked me to help make a minyan and daven mincha (pray the weekday afternoon service.) Then they asked me if I would come back during the seventh inning stretch to daven maariv (pray the weekday evening service.) So instead of singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame, I was outside praying the sh’ma.
At first it seemed incongruous to be out praying at a baseball game, unless you are praying for your team to win. There is nothing more American than baseball and hotdogs. There is nothing more Jewish than mincha and maariv, and davening with a minyan. And yet, here we were combining this most American and most Jewish of activities. I realized how portable our religion is, and how that ability to carry our religion anywhere has helped the Jewish religion to survive.
Ours is a portable religion. Throughout history, we Jews have often had to pack our bags and leave for a new community, often on the other side of the world. We have been able to carry our religion with us. In particular, immigrants have come to the United States from throughout the world and built a distinctly American way of practicing Judaism.
The ability to carry our religion with us to new places is symbolized in this week’s portion. The Israelites are given careful instructions how to set up their encampment as they prepared to wander through the wilderness. At the very center of the encampment was the portable tabernacle, the symbol of God’s presence within the camp. Encamped around the tabernacle was the tribe of Levi, responsible for transporting and setting up the tabernacle. Finally, on the outside were the twelve tribes, led by the tribe of Judah encamped to the east. Wherever the Israelites traveled, their religion was in the very center.
This portion is also read each week before the festival of Shavuot (weeks or Pentecost). According to our tradition, the Torah was given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai in the middle of the wilderness to show that the Torah is not limited to any one place, but can be carried anywhere. We have been able to carry our Torah and build communities in countless localities throughout the globe. I have been privileged to visit synagogues in places as far flung as Alaska, Hawaii, South Dakota, Helsinki, Finland, and Caracas, Venezuela. One day I hope to visit synagogues in other parts of the world including throughout the Far East.
This idea is true in our day-to-day lives. We must have a religion that is not limited to synagogues and houses of worship, but can be carried anywhere. There is a need for ethics, for holiness, for a sense of God’s presence in our schools, our places of business, our homes, and even our ballparks. Much of my writing has focused on how to apply the wisdom of the Torah in various situations – our work life, our family life, our community life, and our recreation. The Kotzker Rebbe once said, “Where is God? Wherever we let Him in.” The Israelites wandered through the wilderness with a symbol of God’s presence in the center of their camp. As we travel from place to place, as we go about our daily lives, may we feel that same sense of God’s presence everywhere we travel. Although we face Jerusalem when we pray, we know that religion is not confined to Jerusalem, or to any other place. Ours is a truly portable religion. May we carry it everywhere we go.

PARSHAT BEMIDBAR
(5763)

PREPARING FOR LOVE

“The Israelites did accordingly, just as the Lord had commanded Moses, as they camped by their standards so they marched, each with his clan according to his ancestral house.”
(Numbers 2:34)

This week we begin a new book of the Torah – bemidbar meaning “in the wilderness.” The preparations were over and the journey was about to begin. The Israelites would wonder through the wilderness forty years. How does one prepare for such a journey?
One verse of the Torah gives a hint. “As they camped, so they marched.” What happens in our home prepares us for what we do outside our home. Our behavior as we go out into the world reflects our behavior at home. This is true for all aspects of our journey through life. But it is particularly true of how we relate to people. How we love people in the world reflects how we learned to love at home.
When we journey out into the world, we are commanded to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” (Leviticus 19:18) Such love does not come naturally. Babies may be adorable. But they are also a self-centered bundle of appetites and instincts seeking fulfillment. Children must learn to put their own needs aside and think of others. They must learn to honor their parents and grandparents, to get along and even help their siblings, to be kind to an ever widening circle of aunts and uncles, cousins, family, and friends. What they learn in their home they will then carry out into the world.
Unfortunately, too many parents shirk their duty of teaching their children how to love. They are too busy pursuing professional and personal goals. Or they are worried about demanding too much of their children. They are frightened to discipline their children. Perhaps if they are too strict with their children, their children will not love them. Too many children grow up and go out into the world as self-centered bundles of instincts, never having learned to put aside their own needs to love their neighbor as themselves.
The Rabbis of the Talmud speak of two kinds of love. (see Avot 5:20) The first is conditional love, love with an ulterior motive, love where we want something back in return. The classic example from the Bible was the love between Amnon and Tamar, love that was really sexual desire, and that quickly turned to hate. According to the Talmud such love can never last. For in such conditional love, we are focused on our own needs and not the needs of the other.
The second kind of love is unconditional love. In such love there is no ulterior motive, we are totally focused on the needs of our neighbor. We read about such love in this week’s haftarah (prophetic portion)machar hodesh, taken from the book of Samuel. It speaks of the love between two friends whose souls were bound one with the other, Jonathan and David. In this portion, Jonathan selflessly gives up his chance at the monarchy to save the life of his friend David. It is love where the self is totally set aside.
As we journey out into the world, we must learn to put ourselves, our needs, our appetites aside to help other human beings. We learn that by the way we are raised, by the example set by our parents, by lessons in self-restraint and self-discipline. As we live in our home, so will we journey out into our lives. May we come from the kind of home that prepares us for such a journey.

PARSHAT BEMIDBAR
(5762)

SPIRITUALITY VERSUS RELIGION

“The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance.” (Numbers 2:2)

I hear the words all the time: “Rabbi, I am very spiritual but I am not religious.”
There is a dichotomy in our society between spirituality and religion. Spirituality is good; religion is bad. Spirituality is about a one-on-one encounter with God; religion is about institutions and rules. Spirituality is about spontaneity; religion is about conformity. Spirituality is free form; religion is set in its ways.
People tell me that they can have a spiritual experience on the beach at sunrise or on a mountaintop at sunset. There are no rules, no dues, no building funds, no clergy, just a human being standing alone before God. Many, including such prominent religious thinkers as the late philosopher Martin Buber, believed that religion stifles spirituality. To Buber, spirituality is confronting God as The Eternal Thou; in religion our relationship with God becomes a mere I-It.
This embrace of spirituality at the expense of religion is part of the American individualistic do-your-own-thing culture. Robert Bellah and his co-authors, in their book Habits of the Heart, wrote about Sheilaism, based on one of their interviewees Sheila who invented her own religion to meet her private spiritual needs.
In this week’s portion we read of the Israelites’ preparations for their march through the wilderness. A census was taken of men of military age. Each tribe marched in formation under its own banner. The image is of a military campaign, humans organized and marching together. What is not shown is individuals marching through the desert on their own to meet their personal spiritual needs.
The military metaphor is apt. The Torah’s religious ideal is not the individual standing alone before God (although there is time for this also.) The metaphor is rather the community, organized in an almost military fashion, to do God’s work here on earth. The question is not, “How can I relate to God as an individual?” The question is rather, “How can I join a community to do God’s work on this earth?”
That is where religion comes in. Religion is about organizing a community of people who share a vision of God, and what God wants us to do in the world God created. Religion is about perfecting ourselves, our community, and ultimately the entire world as a kingdom of God. A military operation can accomplish things through discipline and teamwork that an individual soldier cannot accomplish. In the same way, religion can accomplish things that individuals, no matter how spiritual, cannot accomplish.
i often hear people say, “I don’t believe in organized religion.” My pat answer is, “Join my synagogue, you’ll find us disorganized.” The real answer is that people organize with other people to accomplish something important. Religion is people who have organized to transform the world. Nothing is more important.

PARSHAT BEMIDBAR
(5761)

WITH TORAH AT THE CENTER

“The tent of meeting with the camp of the Levites shall be set forward in the middle of the encampment.”
(Numbers 2:17)

I teach a Torah class in Coral Springs every Wednesday afternoon. I raised the question to my students of Isaac’s disappearance after the Akeda (the near sacrifice by his father Abraham.) According to one midrash (rabbinic commentary), Isaac went off to study Torah in a yeshiva. A similar midrash teaches that Jacob went off to study Torah after stealing his brother’s blessing. My students were surprised by these two midrashim. Where did they go to study? And what did they study?
Obviously they did not study the five books of Moses as we have them. These books were written long after their deaths. The rabbis envisioned a place called the Yeshiva of Shem and Eber where they went to learn God’s Torah. The word Torah in its most generic sense means teaching. God is a teacher. The reason the rabbis taught that the patriarchs went off to learn Torah is to set them up as role models. According to the Rabbinic vision of the good life, the greatest commitment a person can make is to study Torah or God’s teachings.
We see this symbolically in today’s portion. The Israelites were encamped in a giant square, three tribes in each direction. The tribe of Levi, which handled the rituals and carried the sacred objects, was encamped on the inside. At the very center was the tent of meeting, the tabernacle which the Israelites had built. In the center of that was the Holy of Holies, which contained the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. In other words, God’s teachings were at the very center of the Israelite camp.
We use many metaphors when we speak of God. As Jews, perhaps the most important is that God is a teacher. It is not enough that God created the cosmos. To the Jewish mind, that love is manifested in God teaching us how to live. We pray every morning, “You have loved us with an great love, O Lord God Y by giving us laws of life Y Therefore guide our hearts to understand and discern, listen and learn, teach and observe, do and uphold all the words of Your Torah with love.” How does God show God’s love for us? Just as a parent teaches a child how to live, so God teaches us. The perfect life is the life spent studying these teachings.
What do these teaching require of us as human beings? Jews of various outlooks will differ. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal rabbis will all differ on the precise details of the question, “What does God expect of us as human beings and as Jews?” But all will agree that God is a teacher. And all agree that the ideal in life is to study God’s teachings in order to understand what we need to do as human beings.
The portion we read, Bemidbar, always falls on the Sabbath before the festival of Shavuot (the feast of Weeks). The Shavuot is probably the most ignored holy day on the Jewish calendar. Our minds are on proms, graduations, and summer vacations, not on the day that celebrates the giving of the Torah. Yet, Shavuot includes so many beautiful observances. We eat dairy foods the evening of Shavuot. (It is the perfect time to try out the cheese blintze recipe.) Many traditional Jews stay up all night studying Torah, based on another midrash that when God was ready to give the Ten Commandments, Moses had to go tent to tent waking people up. On Shavuot we read the book of Ruth, a beautiful story of a Moabite woman who accepted the Torah and became a convert. Many Conservative and Reform synagogues including our own honor high school students who have continued their Torah studies with a Confirmation ceremony.
Most important, Shavuot celebrates an idea which should be at the center of Jewish life. God is a teacher. God showed God’s love by teaching us, the meaning of the word Torah. God did not leave us humans to flounder on the earth without direction, but has shown us how to live our lives. We show our love for God by studying and ultimately observing God=s Torah.

PARSHAT BEMIDBAR
(5760)

NATURE OR NURTURE

“On the first day of the second month they convoked the whole community, who were registered by their family ancestry, the names of those aged twenty years and over listed head by head.”
(Numbers 1:18)

How important is lineage and bloodlines in establishing our identity? This week’s portion contains a careful numbering of the people Israel as they prepared to wonder through the wilderness. Not only did Moses and Aaron count the absolute numbers, they counted by bloodlines. According to the Biblical commentator Rashi on the verse quoted above, “People brought their genealogical documents and witnesses who verified the circumstances of their birth, this applied to each individual to establish their kinship with a tribe.”
Bloodlines became vital in later Jewish law. A person is a Jew if and only if his or her mother was Jewish, regardless of their upbringing. Whether one belongs to the particular tribes of Kohen or Levi is totally based on one’s biological father, even if he is not present in their lives. Numerous areas of Jewish law, including who one may marry, are totally dependent on bloodlines, genetics, and lineage.
This importance of bloodlines is one reason that adoption never became a formal procedure in Jewish law. Adoption is about cutting one person’s blood lines and attaching them to other parents. It grew out of Roman law. In traditional Jewish law adoption does not exist. The message seems to be: Who we are depends on who provided our sperm and our ovum. Nature is everything, regardless of nurture.
As an adoptive parent, I find this idea troubling. Is our identity totally established by genetics, regardless of how we are raised? This is the view of many people today. Over and over we hear people say that we are a product of our genes, that if we can uncover the entire human genome, we can totally predict what a person will become. There was a recent best seller teaching that parenting does not really matter, it is all predetermined by our genes anyway. Does the Bible really support this point of view?
There is another passage in this week’s portion and another Rashi that demonstrates a very different approach. The Torah says, “These are the descendants of Aaron and Moses” (Numbers 3:1) followed by a listing of the Aaron’s family. Why is Moses mentioned? Rashi writes that Moses is listed “because he taught him Torah. This teaches that whoever teaches another’s son Torah, it is as if he gave birth to him.”
The comment indicates that the true parent is the one that teaches, the one that mentors, the one that passes his or her values to the child. A passage in the Talmud builds upon this: “Whoever raises an orphan in their home, scripture looks at it as if they gave birth to him or her.” (Sanhedrin 19b). According to these passages, parenting is not about genetic lineage or sperm and egg donors. Parenting is about raising a child and passing on values. Nurture, not nature is important. Adoption is a wonderful way to build a family and fulfill the commandment of “be fruitful and multiply.” What a child is grows out of how a child is raised.
Here are two contradictory ideas growing out of the same Torah reading. On one hand, who we are is based on our genes, and nature is everything. On the other hand, who we are is based on our parenting, and nurture is everything. Could it be that they are both true. Nature and nurture, gene pools and parenting, birth parents and adoptive parents, together create our identity as human beings.